Clio is just seven. So why did her mother sit her down to warn her about internet porn?


Clio is just seven. So why did her mother sit her down to warn her about internet porn

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UPDATED:

01:09 GMT, 6 June 2012


Every parent's nightmare: Tanith Carey with her seven-year-old daughter Clio, who is starting to ask questions about sex

Every parent's nightmare: Tanith Carey with her seven-year-old daughter Clio, who is starting to ask questions about sex

The other day, as my seven-year-old daughter Clio arranged her furry toys into a ‘sleeping club’ at the end of her bed, she turned to me with the question every parent dreads. ‘What’s sex’ she asked, with a hint of a grin that told me she suspected the answer was going to be interesting.

In generations gone by, this conversation about the birds and the bees could have been handled with some basic mechanics and a few generalisations about grown-ups in love wanting to feel as close to one another as possible.

But in this day and age, I would not have been doing my job as a parent if I did not also warn Clio that one day she might come across images on the internet that are most definitely not the way Mummy and Daddy cuddle up close together.

Of course, it’s utterly repugnant that we live in a society where we have to raise the subject of pornography with children of this age. But then we have to accept that this generation of parents has presided over the biggest explosion in free hard-core imagery in human history — and it is our children who are paying the price with their childhoods.

Naturally, as an aware mother, I am doing everything in my power to make sure porn does not seep into our home by fitting filters on all our computers. Clio does not have a Facebook or email account. The only site she regularly accesses is Build-a-Bear.

As a parent, I also welcome the Daily Mail campaign, backed by Tory MP Claire Perry, to introduce an opt-in system whereby consenting adults who want to access pornography can still do so — but it does not stream uninvited into the homes of families who don’t.

Meanwhile, study after study proves that it is no longer a question of if Clio will ever see pornography, it is simply a question of when.

It is commonly acknowledged that around one in three children in the UK accesses explicit images by the age of ten.

At the same time, the internet’s insatiable need to shock means the images children are viewing are becoming increasingly depraved.

Dilemma: Tanith says she would not be a responsible parent if she didn't warn Clio that one day she might come across pornographic images on the internet

Dilemma: Tanith says she would not be a responsible parent if she didn't warn Clio that one day she might come across pornographic images on the internet

Even the animated characters our children hold dear, such as Winnie the Pooh and the Disney Princesses, have been pornified into performing sexual acts.

A convenient side-step for those who oppose any clampdown on internet porn has been to repeatedly blame parents for not being vigilant enough around their children.

But with the best will in the world, as Clio grows up, I can’t be with her every moment of the day. I won’t be at every play-date as she surfs the web with her friends and their older siblings. When she eventually goes to secondary school, I won’t be on the school bus when she opens an email from a friend who has sent her a link to a porn website.

Anyway, a recent study has blown apart the claims that it’s all the fault of neglectful parents using computers as babysitters. For eight out of ten children, their first exposure to porn is accidental — via instant messages, email links and websites.

So with this in mind, I braced myself for a difficult, but very necessary conversation. I sat Clio on my lap and carefully explained that sex is something fun you can do when you are older to show you love someone; and sometimes it’s also something you do to make a baby.

Demanding better protection: Tanith welcomes the Daily Mail campaign, backed by Tory MP Claire Perry (pictured), to introduce an opt-in system whereby consenting adults who want to access pornography can still do so

Demanding better protection: Tanith welcomes the Daily Mail campaign, backed by Tory MP Claire Perry (pictured), to introduce an opt-in system whereby consenting adults who want to access pornography can still do so

But at the same time, I told her that even when she is looking at her favourite puppy videos on YouTube, she might accidentally find herself on a website that gives her the wrong idea about what sex should be.

There, she may come across adults with no clothes on who are not acting kindly or gently to each other. In the same way as the characters in a scary movie are not real, I told her, these are also grown-ups play-acting for the camera.

I reassured her that if ever she happened to come across anything frightening, she should talk to me about it — and I will never be angry.

I can’t say I found the conversation easy. On several occasions, I searched desperately for the right words. I knew how vitally important it was to tread a careful line between making sex sound positive and healthy, and scaring her half to death.Clio considered all this for a moment — then asked me if they were like the scary bits in Harry Potter. I replied yes, but these images might make her feel even more confused and embarrassed.

She nodded her head and sagely agreed she did want to see anything like that — and then went back to arranging her bears.

In the same way that I accepted my mother’s advice 40 years ago never to accept sweets from strangers, Clio didn’t ask why: she just seemed to accept that would be a very bad thing to do.

Later, to strengthen my resolve that I had done the right thing by bringing such horrible realities into my child’s world, I logged onto a website that has become one of the most popular internet portals for children because it shows thousands of free porn clips.

There, in less than a second, I saw a prominent ad showing a woman bound around the mouth, her face contorted. At the same time, she was being abused by several faceless men who were out of the shot.

I tried to imagine what Clio, in all her wide-eyed innocence, would have made of it. I could only look at it for a few seconds because I quickly felt nauseous — not only because of the degradation of the woman in front of me, but also the thought that her image would have been seen by thousands of impressionable children already that day.

After all, it is only now that we are beginning to see the full effects of broadband internet on the children who have grown up with it.

Last month, Dr William Struthers, a neuroscientist and academic, told MPs that children’s first exposure to porn is so shocking that it becomes almost impossible to erase.

He told how ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain mean the very act of watching pornography makes young people more likely to act it out; and how porn is ‘an accelerator’ that makes young people have sex earlier.

He spoke of a lost generation of boys who have problems forming attachments and who become increasingly isolated from the rest of society by their porn use, and of young girls who feel they should debase themselves during sex because their first lessons are through pornography.

Dr Struthers told how he, too, has broached the subject of pornography with his ten-year-old son.

Depraved: Even the animated characters our children hold dear, such as Winnie the Pooh (above) and the Disney Princesses, have been pornified into performing sexual acts, says Tanith

Depraved: Even the animated characters our children hold dear, such as Winnie the Pooh (above) and the Disney Princesses, have been pornified into performing sexual acts, says Tanith

For me, those people who say that pornography should continue to be unregulated for the sake of free speech simply don’t care for the welfare of children. Their voices count for nothing compared to those who work with youngsters and see first-hand the influence internet porn has on young lives.

For instance, I know of no organisation in this country with more experience of what’s on the web, and how it affects children, than CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre).

Last month, chief executive Peter Davies warned MPs that children are using the internet at a much younger age — meaning they needed to be taught about the dangers at primary school. He said: ‘It’s never too early . . . The moment a child becomes the subject of the education system, that’s when you should start. We used to extend our education packages down to ten; they are now down to about eight.’

I have also interviewed psychologists who say children addicted to porn are forming a bigger part of their caseload than ever.

They are counselling boys who haven’t had their first kiss, but who are already on the sex offenders register for looking at explicit pictures of girls their own age. Beyond that, let’s not forget the victims of rape and sexual assault committed by compulsive porn users frustrated at not being able to live out their fantasies in real life.

'For me, those people who say that
pornography should continue to be unregulated for the sake of free
speech simply don’t care for the welfare of children'

This week, the High Court in Edinburgh heard how a boy of 12 repeatedly raped a nine-year-old girl who lived next door because he wanted to ‘feel grown-up’ after watching hardcore porn online. The boy’s lawyer warned that the case could represent just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, adding: ‘This was an emulation of an adult act witnessed by him at this young age.

‘Naturally, given that he has been raised on porn, he also abused the little girl in his bedroom — in front of a 12-year-old friend.’

Of course, time will tell how much my pre-emptive strike has protected my daughter. Certainly my conversation with Clio has to be part of an ongoing dialogue that needs to be age appropriate.

For Cherith Hately, 47, from South London, telling her son Tom about porn at the age of seven was the wisest thing she ever did.

Disturbed by stories she was hearing from her older children of boys urinating on girls at parties (as is often seen online) or refusing to wear condoms because it’s not done in pornography, she felt forewarned was forearmed.

Cherith, a computer specialist, said: ‘I brought it up one night after dinner in the kitchen. I wanted to give him a shock absorber so he knew what he was likely to see on the internet wasn’t real.

‘I explained to him that sex is lovely — but porn is an industry that aims to shock you into wanting to see more so you spend money on it. I told him that once you’ve seen something, it can’t be unseen.

‘He may have felt a little embarrassed, but children want to believe in love and intimacy, and ultimately I believe it was reassuring.

‘Now he’s in his teens, he knows other boys who are addicted to pornographic material. Looking back, he tells me he’s very happy that I told him.’

Fighting the scourge: Tanith has been doing 'everything in her power' to ensure porn does not seep into her home by fitting filters on all her computers (file picture)

Fighting the scourge: Tanith has been doing 'everything in her power' to ensure porn does not seep into her home by fitting filters on all her computers (file picture)

So, as a mother, no, I didn’t enjoy telling my Clio about what’s out there. But, like Cherith, I was driven by the realisation that the alternatives to not telling her are so much worse.

After all, if I’d stuck my head in the sand and pretended none of this was happening, Clio would grow up assuming that sex is a violent, debasing pastime she witnesses on her computer screen.

She would have assumed that woman are naturally expected to perform humiliating sex acts that make them grimace in pain.

She would have assumed that porn is what adults do — and that it must be all right because it’s so freely available.

No parent ever wanted to create a world where we’d have to explain pornography to primary school-age children.

But by standing by and doing nothing to stop Internet Service Providers feeding this material into every corner of our lives, that is what we are left with.

Until that changes, we cannot afford to fight shy of talking to our children about sex.

And if we leave it until their teens, we’ve left it too late.

So many of the mums I have interviewed brought up the conversation with older children, only to discover their children had been viewing pornographic imagery online for years.

But if you are still unsure about whether to talk about porn to your young child, log onto any internet pornography site for just a few seconds and imagine viewing it through the eyes of your child.

I think, like me, you will find your answer.

Tanith Carey is author of Where Has My Little Girl Gone How To Protect Your Daughter From Growing Up Too Soon, price 7.99.